Czechs Head to the Polls to Elect Next President
Three months after the election of the populist Eurosceptic and billionaire Andrej Babis as prime minister, Czechs will once again head to the polls on Friday and Saturday to elect a new president.
The favourite in the field of nine candidates vying for a spot in the election runoff later this month is the outspoken incumbent, President Milos Zeman, who at 73 has watched his country become more politically divided during his five-year tenure.
As a member of an increasingly right-wing regional alliance of Central European nations, named the Visegrad Group, that includes Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the Czech Republic stands at an ideological crossroads with the rise of the country's xenophobic far right, which rose to parliament in October’s legislative elections.
Zeman has been a vocal opponent of Muslim integration and is seen as sympathetic to authoritarian regimes, while also becoming one of the Kremlin's most dependable allies in Europe.
They are views worrying many Czechs, who fear that their country may be backsliding from the democratic system they fought so fervently to achieve during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which ended four decades under communism.
"In terms of a possible change in terms of a political movement, this is certainly the most important presidential election [in recent history].
"We are in a situation where if everything goes badly we could be faced with regime change, and though not another dictatorship, we could still perhaps become an illiberal democracy," said political analyst Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague.
"It could indicate the end of the first democratic republic and the onset of the second republic."
Since the split of Czechoslovakia 25 years ago, the presidency has become a somewhat ceremonial position with a limited but not insignificant scope of responsibilities that includes appointing high-ranking government positions and meeting foreign heads of state.
The president is also expected to advance the country’s political trajectory by toeing the line of policies of the elected parliament. That has not been Zeman's way.
In one example in October, then Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka accused Zeman of interfering in Czech foreign affairs and contradicting the government when he repeated his stance against EU sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis while defending Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula as irreversible.
Zeman's speech "was in sharp contradiction of our foreign policy and the president had no mandate to do it," Sobotka said at the time.
Who will win?
If Zeman fails to win 50 percent of the vote required for an outright victory in this weekend's election - which is expected - then two candidates will compete in a runoff scheduled for later this month.
Some local polls see Zeman narrowly beat Drahos in a runoff, while Czech Television released a poll on Monday that has Drahos edging the president with 48.5 percent of the vote to Zeman's 44 percent. According to that same poll, Zeman is likely to receive 42.5 percent in the first round to Drahos' 27.5 percent./ Source: Al Jazeera
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